REVIEW – ‘Wonder Woman’

I am Diana of Themyscira, daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. In the name of all that is good, your wrath upon this world is over.”

It’s been one hell of a journey to get Princess Diana of Themyscira from comic-book to the big-screen. 76 years, to be exact. After silencing the critics with her all-too-brief appearance in the mess that was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, in fine form) finally gets her chance to shine. But with the hefty weight of decades of expectation on its shoulders, and a first-time-to-this-genre female director at the helm, can this film really save the DCEU? Yes. Yes, it can.

After Christopher Nolan set the benchmark for superhero cinema incredibly high with his impeccable Dark Knight trilogy, DC has struggled to find a way forward. While rival studio Marvel goes from strength to strength with each film, DC seems to take one baby-step forward (Man of Steel) and five giant leaps back (Green Lantern). And while last year’s offerings, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, may have earned the box-office dollars, fan and critical reaction was tepid, at best.

Enter Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins. In typical “how dare they!” over-reactionary fashion, the choice of both actress (she’s too skinny!) and director (she’s too indie!) was met with brutal online disdain from DC’s ardent fanboys, which just makes their triumphs here all the more wonderfully ironic. In the hyper-masculine world of comic book superheroes, it’s taken a pair of females to show the boys (namely Zack Snyder) how it’s really done.

Our tale begins in present day where we find Diana working in the artefacts department of the Louvre when an unexpected package arrives. It’s that infamous WWI photo from Batman v Superman (thankfully the only connection to that film screenwriter Allan Heinberg makes), sent to her from Wayne Enterprises. Inside the package, an anonymous (well, not really) note hopes one day Diana will tell the sender the story behind the photo. It’s a rather cheesy setup for her origin story to begin, but it gets the job done better than Batman v Superman‘s lazy handling of the photo in the first place.

Suddenly we’re whisked off to Themyscria, the stunning island paradise home of Diana, her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright) and the rest of the female warrior bad-ass inhabitants, aka the Amazons. Through a beautifully animated sequence, we learn Zeus gave birth to the Amazons to bring love to mankind, after Ares, the God of War, created havoc by corrupting the souls of men. The Amazons, pure and good, restored peace to mankind, and Zeus banished Ares to the underworld…for now. In the midst of war, Hippolyta, desperate for a daughter, carved Diana from clay and begged Zeus to bring her to life. And thus, our titular character was born. Yes, folks. This is DC’s fantastical, mythological cinematic chapter to match the likes of Marvel’s Thor. Just go with it.

To protect Themyscira from the evils of man, Hippolyta hides the island away from the outside world with a magical invisibility shield (just go with this too). Meanwhile, her loyal subjects continue to train and prepare for the day the Amazons are needed again. It’s here we find our young Diana (Emily Carey), curious and desperate to join her fellow tribeswomen and learn their warrior ways. But mother is having none of it. Diana is a princess, not a fighter. It’s up to Aunt Antiope to train her in secret to become their greatest champion. You see, Diana is not like the other Amazons, and her ultimate destiny and connection to the Gods is a secret yet to unfold.

After the obligatory “let’s watch our protagonist train over several years” montage, Diana is now a fierce and strong heroine, eager to take her place as protector of her people. But, of course, Hippolyta still stands in her way. Life for the Amazons gets a whole lot less peaceful when American spy Steve Trevor (a mesmerising Chris Pine) crashes his plane through the island’s invisibility cloak. In doing so, he literally brings WWI to the shores of Themyscira, in the form of a swarm of German soldiers.

In a gloriously choreographed fight sequence, the Amazons naturally lay waste to the soldiers, and rightfully demand Trevor leave their island immediately. But when he tells Diana of the “war to end all wars” raging outside her idyllic homeland, she decrees this to be the return of Ares, and her duty now lies with helping bring an end to this epic war (and Ares), once and for all.

So our duo head off for London, and it’s here where the fun really begins. Naturally, taking a mythological goddess, raised on an island of Grecian warriors, and dropping here in turn-of-the-20th-century England is going to create some glorious fish-out-of-water comedy. Gadot handles this expertly, managing to perfectly sell her innocent naivety as wonderfully as Amy Adams in Enchanted or Chris Hemsworth in Thor. Diana is disgusted by the sight of London, with its chimney smoke-filled skies and bustling streets, becomes dazzled by the wonders of ice cream (“You should be so proud”, she tells the vendor), and puzzled by the inability to fight in modern women’s clothing. Gadot is a true delight to watch in these scenes, and her comic timing is surprisingly sharp.

It’s here the film takes its compulsory darker turn, as we meet our villains of the piece. Over in Belgium, the menacing General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his right-hand woman Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are hastily cooking up nasty biological chemicals to help ensnare the war for Germany. Maru, with her scarred face partially hidden by a creepy prosthetic face mask, is a gloriously horrible sight to behold. Sadly, her character is underdeveloped, as is Ludendorff. One can only assume showing the audience these two are evil Germans is all we needed to know to appreciate and understand their villainy.

From here, Diana and Trevor join forces with a trio of Trevor’s war buddies (Ewen Bremner, Said Taghmaoui, and Eugene Brave Rock) and make tracks for the Belgian battlefront to stop Ludendorff (who Diana has determined is Ares incarnate) and Dr. Maru for good. And that’s about all one can say without heading down the spoiler rabbit hole. But once the action really starts, the film never lets up, and delivers some phenomenally entertaining set pieces, filled with smart dialogue, thrilling fight sequences and dazzling visual effects.

Where Wonder Woman really sets itself apart from the other entries in the DCEU is its screenplay, purely for the fact it features a cohesive, interesting and fully-developed narrative. Batman v Superman was a jumbled mess of plot holes and unfinished ideas (which thankfully the Ultimate Edition mostly fixed). Suicide Squad was far too frenetic to ever nail down one clear plot line or properly developed character. And Man of Steel failed to ever really determine its mood and pace which made the film entirely dull and lifeless. But with Wonder Woman, screenwriter Heinberg delivers a smart and expertly paced screenplay, soaring with effective emotion, adherent ideas, and deep character development. It’s the kind of screenplay Marvel has made its mark with, and taking a page out of the leader’s book is what DC has failed to do until now.

What’s truly striking here is the surprising avoidance to connect the film to the other chapters in the DCEU. Besides the mention of Wayne Enterprises during the film’s opening scene, there are no references or connections to any other DC characters to be found. This allows Wonder Woman the freedom to be a genuine stand-alone piece of cinema, and considering the expanded franchise surrounding it, that’s rather staggering. For this reason, the film remains entirely accessible to all audiences, given no prior DC knowledge is required. In this day and age of tentpole franchises, that’s incredibly rare.

Because of this refusal to assume the audience already knows the ins and outs of Wonder Woman, the film works harder to get its important elements right, namely the connection of Diana and Steve. Other films in the DCEU lazily fall back on expecting audiences to already know Clark Kent and Lois Lane or The Joker and Harley Quinn are star-crossed lovers, and therefore their love stories have seemed entirely forced and completely underdeveloped. But Jenkins gives Diana and Steve’s story a completely new and fresh perspective, making the assumption we know nothing of their grand love story. Witnessing the two fall for each other is a beautiful sight, namely due to the electric chemistry of Gadot and Pine, and one of the film’s biggest triumphs. Their romance is genuine and affecting, particularly in the film’s climactic moments, and will have you aching for more.

But the star here is of course Gadot, bringing a hefty dose of humanity and emotion to a role that could so easily have fallen into farce. Diana exudes power in all that she does, without ever falling back on her sexuality or physical appearance to feign that dominance. It’s Gadot’s determination to give this character depth and layers outside her beauty that make her performance entirely revelatory, and the best character performance DC has given us since Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. You can’t help but fall in love with the humanity and heart Gadot delivers here, particularly when her fearless nature comes into play. The strength Gadot gives Diana is astonishing to witness, particularly during one sequence on the Belgian front where she displays tremendous courage and compassion that others do not.

As brilliant as Gadot’s performance is, it’s clearly been led there by the wonderful direction of Jenkins. Allowing a female director to take hold of an iconic and powerful female superhero was a stroke of genius. Jenkins knows how to get the most out of an actor (just look at what she did with Monster), and her work here is typically masterful. The vision a female director brings to a female-centric film like this is necessary because it avoids the film ever exploiting Diana’s physical presence. Yes, Gadot is stunningly beautiful. Yes, Wonder Woman and the Amazons wear fairly skimpy clothing. But neither of these factors are ever sexualised or glorified in any way. In fact, Steve Trevor is far more objectified than any of the female characters here, particularly in one flesh-filled scene. In an age of shamefully misogynistic cinema still somehow existing (I’m looking at you, Baywatch), isn’t that decidedly refreshing?

As teased with her grand appearance in Batman v Superman, the other star of the picture is the score, centred around the epic and instantly-iconic cello-laden (yes, it’s a cello, not a guitar) Wonder Woman theme. It’s rather odd we’ve never been gifted a powerful theme to really match and connect with a DC or Marvel hero until now, especially given how key the scores of John Williams and Danny Elfman were to Superman and Batman respectively, back in the day. But from the opening bars of the film, composer Rupert Gregson-Williams takes Hans Zimmer’s iconic theme and expands and elaborates it to new heights. When it truly comes into play during the film’s key moments, its one of those magic moments of music and cinema combining to create utter perfection.

The film does have a few minor faults, namely the big, epic finale battle between Diana and the main villain (minor spoiler – it’s not Ludendorff or Maru). It’s not quite as overbloated and nauseatingly-long as Snyder’s work in Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, but it edges achingly close. Perhaps in a genre film like this, a mega fight conclusion is rather obligatory, but for a film so deeply rooted in character and emotion, the sequence almost feels a little out of place. That being said, it’s still a magnificent sight to see Diana finally come into her powers, and embrace her true destiny as Wonder Woman.

Another missed opportunity is the lack of screen time to one of the film’s most lovable and delightful characters, Steve Trevor’s assistant Etta (Lucy Davis). Her quirky and charming nature is sparingly used (even if she is heavily used in the trailers), and it’s a real shame we don’t get to enjoy more of this character. When she is on screen, she’s captivating to watch, and brings a true sense of warmth and humour to the film. But sadly, it just leaves you desperate for more.

In saying that, it’s unfair to pick at what’s wrong with a piece of cinema that really gets so much right. Wonder Woman is ultimately incredibly satisfying, and likely the most fun you’ll have at a superhero movie this year. Or perhaps any movie, for that matter. It’s the first chapter in the DCEU that doesn’t crushingly disappoint its audience, and will genuinely have you excited to witness it all again. If nothing else, that’s enough of a victory for Gadot and Jenkins.

The fact it’s taken until 2017 to get a proper (I refuse to acknowledge Elektra or Catwoman) female-lead superhero film is really quite startling. Why film studios have shied away from this prospect for such a long time is staggering, and hopefully the box-office will show how wrong they were. Adding to that, we’ve never had superhero film directed by a female director either, and after what Jenkins has delivered, this clearly needs to change immediately.

Wonder Woman annihilates both birds with one stone, and in the process, may have finally shattered this ridiculous glass ceiling for good. Your move, Captain Marvel

★★★★☆

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